Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Books | Sports

March 19, 2006

Journey to 'Fantasyland'

Author Sam Walker tells Gelf about his obsessive ride through the fantasy-baseball scene.

Carl Bialik

As part of his gig as sportswriter for the Wall Street Journal, Sam Walker would routinely head south and west in the spring to visit baseball training camps in search of feature articles, preferably about the business of baseball. But in 2004, his mission was quite different: Walker, on book leave, was scouting out players for his fantasy-baseball team.

Though he'd never before played the popular brain game—in which amateur general managers form leagues, draft players, and then gain points based on how their players perform in real life, for real, separate teams—Walker was sure he could master the game thanks to his connections in the sport. Though he'd be competing in Tout Wars, a league for fantasy baseball's elite, only Walker could call general managers and visit players in American League locker rooms to get the scoop on roster moves and injuries. His competitors were fantasy-baseball experts, some of whom published their commentary in major newspaper and websites or sold it in books. Walker's inside access was meant to be his killer advantage; ultimately, it was his downfall.

The resulting book, Fantasyland, chronicles Walker's obsessive effort to top the Tout Wars standings. He hired two advisors—Sigurd Mejdal and Ferdinando di Fino—as assistant GMs for the Nightwalkers; drafted David Ortiz but also Sidney Ponson at auction; spent nearly $50,000 before he stopped counting; lost touch with friends; impregnated his wife and then stayed at a baseball game he was scouting even after he got the call with the happy news from her; met the creators and celebrities of the fantasy scene; drank bad beer with Bill Mueller; staged a protest of a Dodgers roster move; traded emails with an Oakland A's prospect; found himself watching way too much baseball; and, after the season, produced an account of the madness that's a lot more fun than, in this Gelfer's opinion, playing fantasy baseball (also called Rotisserie baseball). (Disclosure: I write and edit for the Wall Street Journal Online.)

Walker spoke by telephone with Gelf recently about the publicity demands for his first book, the juicy bits he had to cut from his first draft, why he wouldn't want to play in a league with his newborn son, and why baseball players would make lousy fantasy players. Here's an edited transcript of the conversation:

Sam Walker
Elena Seibert
Gelf Magazine: Is this your first book? How are you adapting to the publicity demands?

Sam Walker: It's my first book; I've done sports radio about articles before.
The thing that's really taken the place of the book tour is radio interviews by satellite. Companies set these up, and publishers pay for them. From 7 a.m., I might do 35 interviews back to back until 1:30.

GM: Do you have trouble making things sound fresh when you're saying them for the 35th time?

SW: I thought it would be really redundant, but you kind of get into a groove. Usually when you do radio, you have to have talking points. But when you do it so rapid-fire, it becomes easier. You do have to stop every once in a while and realize you're getting away from what is really interesting to people—you have to do some self-assessment.
It's probably better to do it this way, while it's all still fresh in my mind. A lot of authors say that after a few weeks, they don't want to read their book again, and they don't want to ever look at it.

GM: You mention in the book how much money you spent—roughly $50,000 before you stopped counting. WIll you recoup that with your advance and royalties?

SW: It was all my advance. I had a budget in mind. We were originally going to try to publish the book in 2005, around Father's Day. I really thought that was possible. I don't know what I was thinking. I thought it would be a compressed schedule, so it would be OK to spend so much on the budget, because it wouldn't be long that I'd be out of work [at the Journal]. But it ended up taking far longer. I don't think I'm taking a bath on this project, but it's pretty close.
It wasn't about the economics. The more I got into it, the more I realized that I won't ever be able to do this again. I was really under the fingernails of the game. I know everything that happened in the 2004 season. It was a once-in-a-lifetime thing to get that close to the game. There was nothing else I would want to spend my money on. I always felt at the time like it was worth it to do everything I could to enjoy the experience and make it as memorable as can be. Life changes and you don't have that kind of energy, you don't have that kind of time. It was kind of a last hurrah.

GM: You say you know everything that happened during the season. Were there a lot of tidbits that were tough to cut?

SW: Oh my God. Cutting the book was really the hard thing. Sports books are books geared to men and sports fans—they have to move. You can't spend a lot of time digressing. Some of the stuff I had to cut, I can't believe I had to cut. And there are things that happened during the season that for one reason or another I can't put in the book—I would get someone in trouble, or someone didn't want something in the book. I wish I could do a European version, or an extended DVD. Some of the things that happened were mind-boggling. There's so much material on the cutting-room floor that was funny or great.
I had an enormous amount of fun writing the book. I still feel like I'm going to have to pay for it in some sort of cosmic, karmic way.
The writing was the hard part. The problem is, when you set out on a project like this, you have 35 characters: all the guys in Tout Wars, and my players, and members of my research team.
I'm trying to create a smooth narrative and make sure I'm not going into too many tangents. That was hard. That was not fun. There was a lot of writing, rewriting, throwing in the garbage, and starting again.

GM: Can you give examples of the sort of stuff you had to cut that was juicy but you couldn't put in?

SW: Some of the things I had to cut were things that people in baseball front offices did for me. They were harmless—it was nothing against the rules of baseball, or against the spirit of game, or illegal—but there were things that people did for me, under the veil of confidentiality, that helped me make decisions for my team. Some were valuable; some backfired. It didn't give me much of an advantage in the end.
The circumstances of how these things happened were hilarious. I really wanted to win. I got to the point where I knew I was going to write a book, and I wanted to win, but I started to do things that I couldn't put in the book.
Here's one thing that didn't make the book that I can talk about: I picked up Justin Lehr [then of the Oakland A's] late in the season. We met in Puerto Rico and were trading emails throughout the season. The A's called up a kid named Jairo Garcia. This turned out to be not his real name—he was someone else, a few years older. I asked [Lehr] if I should pick him up. I sent Justin an email. He sent me back a long, extremely funny note about Jairo Garcia, a really interesting breakdown of his strengths and weaknesses. He said he was as dumb as a box of rocks. That was in my manuscript for a long time. The problem was, it just didn't fit. Nothing really came of that situation; Justin Lehr was demoted at a time when I didn't need him to be demoted.
You don't want to write a 600-page book about Rotisserie baseball.

“My theory about writing is, the tighter you go, the better it is. If you're willing to beat yourself up, you can always cut something down to a shorter length.”

GM: Was the original manuscript that long?

SW: It wasn't that much longer [than the final text]. I probably cut about 20,000 words [the book was perhaps 115,000 words, Walker says]. I think they wanted to keep it under 400 pages. I think a sports book is supposed to be fun. It's not supposed to feel like War & Peace. You want it to be something people can breeze through. That was the magic line and I kind of wanted to stay under that. My theory about writing is, the tighter you go, the better it is. If you're willing to beat yourself up, you can always cut something down to a shorter length. Sometimes you do it damage, but nine times out of 10 you'll be improving the material, anyway.

GM: How much of your desire to win was for the sake of winning, and how much arose from a desire to make the book better?

SW: When I set out to do this, I knew I was writing a book. At the beginning of the project, it was much more mercenary—this is a book, and every day when you wake up, ask yourself, "Where am I in the narrative? What chapter is this? What am I thinking? What is the theme of the day?"
I did that throughout the early part of the season. Then I wound up in second place in May. I got into second place, and I have a pretty good team. Something came over me. At that point, I started to change. I had built in a schedule—I was trying to get the book out in 2005. It involved a lot of writing as I went along. That went out the window. I didn't realize how hard the game was. It takes so much time when you take it seriously.
I didn't want it to be about some guy's Rotisserie team. For every move I made, for everything I did, I had to talk to someone—talk to a scout, talk to a general manager, or get a hold of some information no one else could get a hold of—to justify that I was trying to do something different. I started thinking, "How can I make a move unless I use some kind of inside information?" I had to go to such lengths to make sure every move I made was informed by something.
And there was also the wrenching quality of making decisions—we made so many trades and did so much negotiating. It was all-consuming. I had given up trying to write while the season was happening. As the season went along and my team started to struggle a bit, I put everything behind trying to win. The book was still there, and I was thinking about how things are going to look in print. But I really got bit. I couldn't bring myself to imagine spending all this money and not winning. I didn't realize the blow it would be to my ego.

GM: You mentioned your derailed schedule—what kept you from finishing the book in time for Father's Day '05 publication?

“I don't want to read Barry Bonds's steroids injection schedule. It's very valuable, but I don't want to write that. I see sports as escapism.”

SW: I probably could have gotten it done, but would have been a crappy book. It would have been a chapter a week. I felt like it would be crappy. I'm not a real fast writer. The problem with too many books like this is there are too many characters, too much happening, and it doesn't feel like there's a narrative line. It's discouraging to me when I hit something in a book and I can tell it wasn't really thought through, and is going in a direction I didn't want it to go. It's better to cut good material than have that effect on the reader. You can get led around to dead ends that maybe are interesting places but don't move the narrative forward. It can discourage the readers. There are few books out there you read that have that uninterrupted narrative. The beauty of Moneyball is, it's an almost perfect narrative from beginning to end. There are definitely flaws in the argument, but it was an incredible narrative. I don't want to read Barry Bonds's steroids injection schedule. It's very valuable, but I don't want to write that. I see sports as escapism.

GM: Before 2004, was baseball your favorite sport?

SW: It always had been when I was a kid, and also as a reporter. It may change some day, but there are so many games, so much variation, and so many players who come up. It's not like other professional sports. These kids come up, and all of a sudden they're in the big leagues. There's so much happening and so many stories.
Plus there's this weird tension in this game where the weight of tradition and the weight of history are so heavy that even in our modern world, where people have computers in their pockets, the game is still a musty old thing that adheres to tradition. Baseball has been a fascinating topic because it's designed to resist innovation and technology and analysis and everything we're using in other parts of the world and business. It's designed to frustrate all that stuff.
In the book I said the best statisticians out there can only predict 60% of what's going to happen. The other 40% is all, are the guy's cleats too tight, did the manager eat a balanced breakfast, is the guy's wife cheating on him? So many other factors go into it. That's why it's been a really interesting topic now.
One of the reasons I wrote the book is, I wanted to rediscover some of why I love baseball. At the Journal, baseball coverage was always steroids, ballpark financing, and Bud Selig. I really wanted to get back into what I saw in people who play fantasy: an unbreakable passion for baseball. Granted, all they care about what's happening in baseball is how it affects their team—how many bases will Juan Pierre steal. There's something I started to envy about that. They just loved baseball. They loved every pitch. They didn't care about larger issues affecting the game. That was window dressing to them.

GM: Did you come to enjoy every pitch, even if it had no impact on your fantasy team or competitors'?

“Baseball is designed to resist innovation and technology and analysis and everything we're using in other parts of the world and business. It's designed to frustrate all that stuff.”

SW: The National League, I had a little trouble with, just because I was involved so heavily in the American League. But I can say now, after a couple of years of this, I was shocked by that change in me: I could turn on any game, and I would look on to see who was pitching, but I wouldn't have to watch for more than a few minutes before some subplot developed. The beauty of Rotisserie, what makes it an intense intellectual exercise, is that it's not just that you buy 23 players, but you also have to pass on several hundred players while you do that. For every guy wearing a uniform, you had to say yea or nay on him during the draft. So watching them play becomes sort of an exercise in measuring your own wisdom and looking at your own conclusions, tested on the field. Your team becomes an extension of your ego. I found myself watching games like Phillies-Marlins. Players move around so much now. I look at the Phillies now, and Aaron Rowand is playing for the Phillies. He's one of the guys I did a lot of research on. I'm going to watch the game to see how he does. I'll watch the Cubs to see Jacque Jones, and the Dodgers to see Bill Mueller—guys like that. Once you've bonded with them on the Rotisserie level, you're always interested in how they're doing, and you will always watch them at the plate. It's fun to watch them doing their job, when you know something about how they approach the craft. I feel I can turn on any game now and watch, which wasn't the case before. I couldn't remember the last time I watched five entire games in April. Now, during the Rotisserie season, I could watch every game if I had a wall of televisions. I love watching baseball now.

GM: What's the scouting report on you as a Rotisserie player? [Originally I asked this question in such a way that revealed Walker's final standings in Tout Wars 2004, but he asked me not to spoil that, as a reader had pulled him aside at a recent publicity event to ask him not to blow the ending.]

SW: I still don't think I'm really cut out for it. Certain people are just able to make—they have a kind of certainty of convictions. You have to have a really strong, solid philosophy of what a baseball team should be. I am really too malleable. At times I am totally swayed by scouting, and at times I am totally swayed by numbers. What Billy Beane said is true: You have to trust your paradigm. If the paradigm is, I'm going to go with guys I like personally, you have to stick to that. If you do it half-assed, you're not going to get the full benefit. If you're going with numbers, you need to have no emotion at all. If you go with stats, you should be about 60% right.
The beauty of player research is, it doesn't expire. Everything I know about David Ortiz or Bill Mueller, it doesn't expire. I did make a few calls to people in the major leagues, whose opinion I trust, and asked, "Who do you like? Who's really impressed you in spring training?"
One thing I would recommend to anyone who plays in a fantasy league: It's about your league, and every league is different. If you study everything your opponents did in the previous season, and look at why they were good—is it that they loaded up on middle infielders, or had a lot of guys with 20-homerun potential, or went after pitchers with low WHIPs [walks-plus-hits divided by innings pitched], odds are, it's going to work next year, because the leagues are pretty static.
No one's ever done more research on a Rotisserie league than I did in the postmortem of the 2004 Tout Wars season. I was able to copy some things that worked, and make a couple of good trades, and I won pretty handily [in 2005].

GM: I was surprised that you announced only in the final sentence that you'd won the league the next year. Are you considering writing a sequel about that season?

“I feel I can turn on any game now and watch, which wasn't the case before. I couldn't remember the last time I watched five entire games in April.”

SW: Honestly, I don't know what to say about it. I'm so baffled by it. A lot of people are saying to me, "You must be killing yourself that you didn't write the book about 2005." At first I was really kicking myself, looking at the standings for 2005. But then I realized that all winning teams are the same. There's not much variation. It would have made for kind of a dull book:
Chapter Five: Still winning.
Chapter Six: Winning by more.
When you're winning, you don't want to mess with the formula that much. I made three trades the whole season, and didn't make a lot of transactions. I had a pretty good team. It would have been pretty boring. The beauty is, every losing team is losing for its own individual reasons. This story will resonate more and be more interesting and seem more different than anyone else's Rotisserie experience because of the way my team fell apart. The way my team fell apart makes for a better story than if I had won. It might have been pretty dull if I had won. I would have taken it, of course, but it would have been more challenging to write as a book. If I have any advice I vastly believe in, it's that everyone should draft a Rotisserie team, and then have a baby in May. I drafted a pretty good team, then watched them through april, which was enough to feel pretty confident about their potential. After Gus was born, the only thing I had time for was sitting with him and watching the game. I watched more baseball last season than I did in 2004, when I was much more distracted. I think that watching the game really gives you enormously important insights. It also calms you down a bit. When you see someone go 0 for 4, it's a lot different than reading about it the next morning. You see he's swinging the bat well, and a couple of balls could have gone either way. It keeps you from overplaying. That was a real asset. I didn't overthink it, and I had a lot of good luck. I didn't have the time to meddle. So, start timing your children!

GM: Will you teach Gus to play fantasy baseball?

SW: I've bound his right arm behind his back so he does everything with his left. I'm going to make sure he's at least 6'3"—I want him to be the left-handed guy in the bullpen.
Sig [Sigurd Mejdal] was in town recently. He was sitting here while I was doing some radio interviews. Gus was on his lap, and Sig was reading him The Baseball Forecasters, some of his advanced statistical theory. Gus was actually paying a little attention. Maybe he's already got the bug.

GM: Would it be easier if Gus really did become a 6'3" reliever, and you drafted him on your team, or to play against him in a fantasy league?

SW: If he were playing, I would have to draft him, whereas at least in fantasy—why do I have a feeling it would be difficult to play with your son?

GM: Would you ever want to be in the front office?

“I gotta feel like what I'm thinking, feeling, and doing has gotta be similar to what real GMs are doing. That's the beauty of fantasy baseball.”

SW: Of course, I think it'd be a great thing. It would be a lot of fun. But it's hard to say. I'm an impatient person. It might be hard to devote your whole soul to one sport—one pursuit of one thing. I'm probably too much of a dilettante to be any good at it. I might get bored of pursuing one goal. I realize guys on the outside—guys playing fantasy basball and doing interesting research—the difference between them and guys running baseball teams is not that great. In terms of knowledge, thought, and decisionmaking ability, they're very similar. What separates GMs is the ability to deal with the press and with people—a certain intuition and abiltiy to negotiate and read other people. The public side of the job is something they're all enormously good at , and it's not soemthing you see in the fanatsy baseball world. In terms of knowledge, though, it's hard for me to distinguish between the two worlds. I've had so many conversations where if you took the person away, had a bag over their head, and listened to what they were saying, it's eerie—you wouldn't be able to tell if they were fantasy players or GMs. In spring training, Allard Baird, general manager of the Kansas City Royals, was talking about his outfield situation and the possibilites. A few weeks later, before the draft, I heard Jason Grey talking about the Royals' outfield situation, and I had déjà vu. If you mixed up the situations, you wouldn't have known who was talking. They were both kind of thinking out loud, thinking about the possibilities—who might step up. Both were thinking about it along the same lines. They were prepared for the same eventualities. They were really doing the same thing. It was one of those moments when I realized, that's the beauty of this fantasy game. There were times when I was scouting a player or doing negotiations that I said, "You know what? I know i'm sitting here, with this silly office, this magnetic board, and I'm just some guy, but I gotta feel like what I'm thinking, feeling, and doing has gotta be similar to what real GMs are doing. That's the beauty of fantasy baseball. It's great simulation. It certainly gives you a sense of what it's like to do that job without having 14 reporters sitting outside your office.

GM: You said Grey and Baird were doing the same thing, and so were hundreds of thousands of Rotisserie players. You mention in the book all the duplication of effort that fantasy entails. What might fantasy players of the world accomplish if they pooled their energy for something more constructive?

“It's not going to save lives and solve giant social conflicts, but it keeps a certain kind of person occupied and happy and content. And that's a pretty valuable thing, too.”

SW: It struck me right before the draft in '04. It struck me, we've got a million people in this country looking at Alec Zumwalt. If they all put their energies into [ending] ethnic cleansing in Africa, or the Middle East peace process—there's got to be some way you can harness that energy. There is a sad quality about it. A lot of people think it's sad that so many people are willing to live vicariously. Ron Shandler would rather win Tout Wars than win the World Series with the Cardinals as an advisor. There is something sad about that. We are a lot more comfortable about being one level removed from actually doing the thing. It's in some way tied in with Reality TV. There's something a little disconcerting about it. At the same time, it's really an intellectual exercise and we're getting away from a time when we think of baseball as a game that you played. The mental game can be just as satisfying as crushing an inside fastball. I think it's the wave of the future and the way we're going to interact with sports. It's perfectly fine and healthy and not doing anybody any harm. It's not going to save lives and solve giant social conflicts, but it keeps a certain kind of person occupied and happy and content. And that's a pretty valuable thing, too.

GM: You write in the book about how you fell out of touch with friends during your season of lunacy. Are you back to where you were socially?

SW: A few friendships are DOA now. My social circle tightened a lot.
It's hard to gauge because of the baby. The life I had then is gone in many ways.
Really disappearing into a hole like that was so different for me. I was always so good at keeping up with people, and I vanished. Some people kind of assumed I'd given up or didn't want to be in contact with them. It was awkward. My family, too. It was strange.
But in the end, it's fine. For me, it felt like this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to really indulge. It wasn't just a book project or a journalistic project, but also to be that close to baseball in that season. It really was a fun season. I'm really glad I had a connection to that for the time I did.
I can't remember how many times I was on a cellphone with someone who had just gotten married, saying, "Sorry I can't be there." I had to explain what I'm doing—"I'm in Toronto, and just got done talking to Kevin Cash about my fantasy team."
If I hadn't written a book, I think I would have been committed by now.

GM: The fantasy season ends just as the best part of the baseball season begins—the playoffs—because all the stats are based on the regular season. Did you stay interested in the playoffs even though your fantasy season was done?

SW: I was still into the playoffs. That Red Sox comeback—who could script that? It was so much more exciting, because so many of my players were in the playoffs. Last year, I had Paul Konerko and Bobby Jenks [of the champion White Sox]. I feel like the World Series was so fascinating because guys from my fantasy team were factoring into the outcome.
In 2004, Curt Schilling was one of my guys. So was David Ortiz, who wasn't a big star, really, at the beginning of the year. He had four game-winning hits in the playoffs! Then there was Doug Mientkiewicz catching the ball [that sealed the final out in the World Series], and Jacque Jones hitting that homer off Mike Mussina after his father had died. [MLB.com] Mariano Rivera has deaths in his family, then he comes back and shuts down the Red Sox. [7Online.com]
Bill Mueller sparked the whole Game 4 rally against the Yankees with a base hit.
I was so fascinated to see these guys.

GM: So to know who is going to win the World Series this year, I should follow the Tout Wars draft closely and see who ends up on the Streetwalkers?

SW: Yeah, whoever I draft—If I go heavy on Indians ... Maybe gamblers pick up on me.

GM: You say that baseball players play other fantasy sports. Do you believe they really don't play fantasy baseball?

SW: Some of them do. I've been told certain players play. They don't play for money. Some major league coaches play, and more players than you think dabble, but I don't think it's that many. They've very worried about the idea of what might happen if they're caught. There's so much sensitivity about that because of the Pete Rose thing.
But at the same time, they don't have time to follow their fantasy team. It's crazy that ballplayers vote for All Stars. They don't see that many players. They see their legaue, a lot of their division, they watch Baseball Tonight, they tune in and catch highlights, but they don't have anywhere near the time to be online to devote to following players.
They all play fantasy football. It's easier; it's just one game a week. Mondays are usually off days, so on Sunday they can keep up. It's not that hard. But I don't think they'd be able to play fantasy baseball. I don't think they'd be any good at it, for sure.

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Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.







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Article by Carl Bialik

Carl Bialik, a co-founder of Gelf, is a writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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